Midwest schools using Spielbergs Shoah project

evansville, ind. | A collection of Holocaust survivors’ testimonies, filmed as a memorial to the millions who lost their lives in the Nazi-run death camps of World War II, has become an educational resource to teach cultural acceptance.

Universities and libraries in recent years have begun using the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation’s film archives to compile their own collections of survivor testimonies that chronicle the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps.

The Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library this week will be the latest to open a collection from the foundation — 115 films that document the lives of survivors and Holocaust witnesses who fled to Indiana, Kentucky and southern Illinois after the war.

“The testimonies of Holocaust survivors are among the most powerful tools we have to address what I think is the biggest problem of the century — that is, racism and violence,” said Douglas Greenberg, president of the foundation, which has about 52,000 archived films.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg formed the foundation after survivors in Poland approached him during the filming of “Schindler’s List.” After seven years of filming survivor accounts, the Los Angeles foundation began copying the archives and offering them as smaller, more accessible collections around the world.

The Indiana film collection was compiled with the financial help of The Committee to Promote Respect in Schools, an Evansville-based organization that encourages cultural respect. It is one of 22 collections in the United States and 47 in the world. More are planned.

The educational power of these collections lies in their ability to establish a universal connection to tragedy and put a human touch on the faceless millions described in textbooks, said Steven Vitto, a researcher at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“No book or story can ever convey what is told in the face of someone who went through the Holocaust,” Vitto said. “The authenticity of that is irreplaceable.”

Evansville’s permanent collection will include interviews with Jewish survivors, political prisoners held during the Holocaust, a participant at the trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg and another who helped rescue and hide those who were being prosecuted.

Each film focuses on a single person and lasts on average two-and-a-half hours.

Ernie Marx, 79, of Louisville, who was spared from the gas chambers at Dachau and later escaped from a prison camp in France with the help of a Roman Catholic priest, recorded his story for the archives to ensure the human survivors of the Holocaust remain part of history.

“We, the survivors that are still left, are dying every day. It’s for the next generations that we do this,” said Marx, who lost a dozen family members in Hitler’s camps and joined the French underground after his escape near the end of the war.

Historians widely estimate that 6 million Jews were killed in the concentration camps that dotted the European countryside under the rule of Hitler’s Third Reich, though an accurate death toll remains untold.

Estimates on the number of survivors are just as uncertain. A registry at the Holocaust museum has about 160,000 documented survivors in the United States. Researchers say the number has not been adjusted to account for those who have died since contacting the museum.

Losing that living link to history pushed the project initially, but foundation officials said giving the public a chance to experience the faces and voices of survivors has become an equally important part of the foundation’s educational efforts.

Marx, who gives lectures on his Holocaust experiences and has taken 50 groups of schoolchildren to the Holocaust museum, said testimonies such as his are meant to be timeless lessons in a world that easily forgets the wrongs of history.

“Unfortunately there is too much ignorance floating around,” Marx said. “The Holocaust can happen again.”